Spartacus ★★★★

I think this film has a bit of a tainted vibe about it because it's the film Kubrick "disowned." And I understand why he did that. It's not a "Stanley Kubrick Film" with his unique style and sensibility, and feels like nothing else he directed. But as a work-for-hire Hollywood product, it's still probably the best sword-and-sandals epic of the period. These were, after all, basically the Superhero films of their day: long, loud, full of spectacle, based on well-known stories, with mostly bland heroes, and a pat message about how society works which is not terribly dissimilar from how contemporary society worked (i.e., in 1950s America, paternalistic, conservative, religious).

SPARTACUS is a little different. The central character is still pretty boring, but overall this is a rather cynical take on politics and the inability of the poor to ever make inroads to equality or justice in the face of an implacable elite. This is one of those films, actually, where the real "auteur" is probably the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy years. Trumbo understands the gross inequality of society, but also sees no way of trying to change it without simply entrenching the interests of the powerful even more.

The film frames it's entire story of the slave revolt as just another chess move in an unending game between the senators in Rome. Crassus is trying to undercut Gracchus, Gracchus tries to use the slave revolt to do the same to Crassus. Crassus destroys the revolt and ends up on top, but with an assist from Julius Caesar, who is in the film mostly as a reminder that this political maneuvering will continue on indefinitely. Meanwhile, Spartacus and all his friends are dead and no progress against slavery at all has been made.

The film offers some sliver of hope at the beginning with a reference to Christianity, and again at the end with the survival of Spartacus's wife and child. But it's really not enough for comfort, and I think the film is aware of this. The elites win, as they always do.

What does Kubrick bring to this? As I said, I don't think the cynicism is his (not that he's opposed to it), but rather belongs to Trumbo. But Kubrick still gets to work with constructing and building what he can within the frame, and I think the film has at least one incredible sequence that's all Kubrick: the gladiator fight.

This scene is the whole film in microcosm: the elites sitting above, idly chatting away about their business while the gladiators sit in the cage below, anxiously awaiting to fight and kill one another for the Romans' amusement. The first fight is seen from Spartacus's point of view, glimpsed through a door, more aural than visual. The second fight is intense and gripping, even though the Romans watching it continue to act somewhat disengaged. Finally, even though Spartacus is defeated, his competitor refuses to kill him and revolts against the Romans, jumping up onto their viewing platform and breaking an invisible plane that had separated his world from theirs. Crassus quickly kills him, though, and his body is left hanging in the prison as a warning to the other slaves.

It's a cleanly shot and edited scene which uses space well and sound effectively, breaking up the characters into two different environments despite being mere feet from each other, and then violently clashing them together, however briefly. It belongs in a list of other Kubrick sequences that approach physical space as a constantly changing matrix of threats: HAL's revolt and subsequent defeat on the spaceship in 2001, the final act of THE SHINING, the sniper sequence in FULL METAL JACKET.

Who knows what SPARTACUS would have looked like if Kubrick had complete control over it? It probably would have meditated a bit more on the nature of history, a la BARRY LYNDON, and perhaps the political dimension would have focused more on the cannibalistic nature of power at the highest levels, a la DR. STRANGELOVE. But it's still a great film, and about as pessimistic as the sword-and-sandals genre got.*

*THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE comes close, though I think that movie is a bit more naive and, frankly, all over the place. "If only we had BETTER politicians," it seems to argue, not (as SPARTACUS does), "This is the fundamental nature of politics, and there's nothing you can do about it."